By David Greenham
This is one of those 75-minute plays where you have to remind yourself to breathe.
Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Bari Robinson. Set design by Peter Bloom and Connor Perry. Lighting design by Seifallah Salotto-Cristobal. Costume design by Lily Prentice, Produced by the Portland Theater Festival, a partnership of East Shore Arts and Mayo Street Arts. Performed at Mayo Street Arts, Portland, ME, through August 21.
As many theatergoers know, there’s been a shift in the paradigm of how theater artists go about their business. Career paths have been interrupted, jobs have become even scarcer, and it seems that everywhere you look there’s a revolving door of leadership. For all its horrors, the Covid pause has sparked a refreshing reassessment of the lives of our creative workers.
The state of Maine has benefited from one such revision. During the height of Covid, Dave Register decided to move back home to Maine. A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, Register was living in Los Angeles and enjoying a successful acting career that included Broadway, regional theater, television, and film credits. He decided that Maine presented an exciting new opportunity for stage artists and created East Shore Arts, a theater and film production company. Last summer the troupe produced Annie Baker’s The Aliens outside of a Portland coffeehouse.
A year later, Register partnered with Ian Bannon, the executive director of Mayo Street Arts, along with a talented team of strong artistic thinkers to create the Portland Theater Festival — a three-play series of challenging and provocative dramas that have been greeted with enthusiasm.
The second production of the series is Antionette Nwandu’s bold one-act, Pass Over. Set in the present on an isolated urban street corner, the script is a flame-throwing riff on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting for Godot. But Nwandu is too smart a playwright to make close friends Kitch (Jay Mack) and Moses (Ashanti Williams) rote updated versions of Didi and Gogo. Black men in America don’t enjoy the isolated anonymity of Beckett’s hapless figures. They are targets. Kitch and Moses, even in their tucked away corner, are well aware of the threats around them. At any moment they could be hassled by someone who wields unquestionable power over them.
Moses responds with an upbeat strategy. “I got plans to rise up to my full potential,” he confidently announces. “I got plans to get off the block.” But he also acknowledges the existential peril — “I ain’t trying to catch no bullet.” That fear drives their frequent startled and tense pauses when they hear or imagine that the police are somewhere nearby — the next block, perhaps, or around the corner.
When the pair can relax, they are charming and funny, mixing memories of the past and dreams of the future. But we know, and perhaps they do as well, that they aren’t going backwards or forwards. Like so many in a society that promises but doesn’t deliver upward mobility, they’re stuck in a place where resources don’t exist. Their antic banter and word play is one way to hold off a nihilistic reality. Their conversation could go on forever, but we know it won’t.
As in Beckett’s script, the pair are not left alone. A white man (Jared Mongeau) arrives, dressed in a white suit, with a picnic basket full of food and a story that parallels the wandering of Little Red Riding Hood. “Gosh, golly, gee,” he chuckles, “I might be lost.” Not surprisingly, Moses and Kitch are skeptical. “The only white folks around here; they’re either Mormon or the ‘PoPo,’” Kitch responds. And neither are welcome.
With the arrival of the white man, Nwandu’s script digs into biases that the privileged classes are reluctant to acknowledge. Cautious, Moses refuses to share any personal details with the visitor. But Kitch is hungry. A bounty of snacks and sustenance emerges from the basket, so the pair eat for a moment. When that happens the balance of power shifts; the white man makes himself at home. When Moses and Kitch begin to start up their repartee, the visitor breaks in and asks, “If I don’t get to say the ‘n-word’ why do you?” “Because it’s not yours,” Moses replies. That immediately triggers the white man’s anger and he explodes, proclaiming, “Everything is mine!”
Eventually, the strange visitor packs up and leaves. Kitch tries to make the best of it, “Could be worse, we could be dead.” Later, Moses notes, with no sense of irony, “Maybe it was just a dream — the American Dream.”
As residents of an abandoned stretch of sidewalk, Mack and Williams establish an endearing connection. Jared Mongeau brings an impeccably eerie edge to the enigmatic white visitor and, later, to the racist cop. Director Bari Robinson, who is also a well-respected area actor, brings a sense of urgency to an intimate production that builds to a startling climax. This is one of those 75-minute plays where you have to remind yourself to breathe.
Raw yet perceptive, the 2017 script examines race in America, both past and present. The character names of Moses and Kitch are taken from an early 20th-century South Carolina manifest of enslaved individuals. The story was created, in part, as a response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager in a hoodie who was shot in a gated community in 2012. Thankfully, there’s no lecturing in Nwandu’s script. Wisely taking her cue from Beckett, she lets the script’s language do its disarming and disturbing work.
The creative curators of the fledgling Portland Theater Festive have raised, with theater experiences like Pass Over, expectations that more challenging stage fare is to come. In Maine, as in the other New England states, our professional theaters are in a state of flux. Let’s hope that they take note of projects that accept theater’s responsibility to offer a critical vision of society.
Note: The final show in the series has just opened, Sylvan Oswald’s Pony. The Mayo Street Arts production runs through September 4.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.